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And Now It Hurts To Know The Truth: Nina Power On “Young Girl”
The Quietus , March 9th, 2018 09:46

In an exclusive extract from Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, edited by Rhian E. Jones and Eli Davies, Nina Power explains her love for Gary Puckett & the Union Gap's 1968 hit 'Young Girl'

Youth, so it’s said, is wasted on the young. Unaware of the brevity of life, the transience of beauty (or at least the fleeting quality of relative health) and the crushing reality of mortality, youth is that most confusingly fetishised of conditions. The youth of the Young Girl is doubly “wasted” because it is always youth for another, at the time and in the future — the Young Girl does not get to enjoy her youth, because others are always ready to enjoy it for her, or mourn its loss later on her behalf. The Young Girl is a repository of projection. Whoever speaks of the Young Girl usually isn’t one. Whenever the Young Girl does speak, she is ignored.

“Young Girl” is a song written by Jerry Fuller, performed by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap and released by Columbia records in 1968. It got to number one in the UK and number two in the US, behind Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. It is sung from the standpoint of a lovelorn, or lusty, man who has somehow come to learn that the object of his affections (the nameless “young girl”) is under the age of consent. It is, in turn, angry (“And now it hurts to know the truth”), obsessive (“Get out of my mind”), victim-blaming (“And though you know / That it’s wrong to be / Alone with me / That come-on look is in your eyes”) and threatening (“Get out of here / Before I have the time / To change my mind”, and also, from the famous chorus, “You better run girl”). It has been alternately read as an open admission of paedophilia from a more “permissive” (or abusive) age, but also as a cry of responsibility from someone who has been tricked by an underage girl lying about her age and is doing the right thing by sending her home. However you read it, it is a deeply creepy thing. These days, it makes people feel uneasy.

It is also a song I adore, and have played many times, for many people, in pubs and flats and on my own, pretending that I am the singer and wondering if I could ever get away with doing a karaoke version.

“Young Girl” is, without doubt, a deeply misogynistic song, reinforcing the idea that neither men nor women can be trusted (she has tricked him with a “disguise” of perfume and make-up and her womanly “charms”; he cannot be trusted not to have sex with her unless she manages to escape). There is a double-meaning in the line “You’ve kept the secret of your youth”, as her youth is both an actual secret, as well as one of those phrases that you say positively whenever someone older happens to look a bit younger than we might imagine someone of that age would look. It is this line that reveals something of the truth of the song, and its context: to be a young girl is to be the pinnacle of heterosexual desire — it is to be, in fantasy at least, the most desirable kind of person.

Everything — from TV to films to tabloids to both men and women’s magazines to pop music to porn — is “about” the young girl. Everyone, including some men (or even more complexly, all masculinity), is supposed to want to “be” the young girl, as it is in her desirability that power lies. Of course, this is not actual power, in the form of political decision-making, or money, or property, or respect or a platform, but it is some other, ineffable kind of authority. The mysticism of girlishness, that supposed kernel of unknowability — forbidden even to the young girl herself, because all the interference just doesn’t give her a fucking chance.

A decade later, ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad attempted to redeem the song, keeping the tune and replacing the lyrics with those by Marie Bergman. In this version, the song is sung from the perspective, not of the anguished man, nor the young girl herself, but from the standpoint of an older woman looking back — the former young girl herself, perhaps, or maybe another woman giving advice:

Slowly, I become accustomed / To arranging the day so that it goes (on) without you / I’m by myself now I am myself now / You stepped straight into my inside / I became so small in your hand / But you were smaller when your mask fell off / From everything you gave / You live in a wonderland / Slowly, I become accustomed / To arranging the day so that it goes (on) without you / I’m by myself now I am myself now / Beneath your cultured surface / You are surely more than a sea / When you grow older, you can ask me / And I shall answer you / About how to give and how to take / Slowly, I become accustomed / To arranging the day so that it goes (on) without you / I’m by myself now I am myself now.

The original tune so haunts Lyngstad’s version that any space the lyrics attempt to carve out is quite overwhelmed, despite the reflective lyrics and oddly jaunty guitar. Yet there is an aloneness here not overcoded by the fantasies of others, and their violent interjections (“You stepped straight into my inside … You live in a wonderland”), and the idea that being by oneself is not loneliness but rather being oneself (“I am myself now”). It is only, thus, when one becomes “invisible” that one can have any peace as a woman.

The young girl is, despite all the attempts to save her, a power without depth, yet culpable, blameable. As the French theorist collective Tiqqun put it in 1999, though careful at the outset to state that their theory of the Young Girl is “obviously not a gendered concept”:

All the unquestionable character of [the Young Girl’s] power, all the crushing self-confidence of this blueprint-person, comprised exclusively of the conventions, codes, and representations fleetingly in force, all the authority that the least of her gestures contains — all that is immediately cross-indexed to her absolute transparency to ‘society’. And precisely because of her nothingness, each of her judgements has the imperative weight of the whole organization of society — and she knows it.

The young girl, everything screams, is nothing, despite her “authority”. Why, then, do I find the original song so appealing, so alluring despite (or, psychoanalytically, of course, because) the fact that it is so, so terribly wrong? Do I imagine myself in the position of the young girl, possessed of the ability to bewitch this man so he can barely contain himself? Is it Gary Puckett’s wolf-like croon-howl as he warns the young girl to run home “before it’s too late”? Do I imagine myself in the position of the man, as sexual predator? Do I imagine singing it to myself as a young girl, from the standpoint of an older woman, as Lyngstad did? Is it merely a great pop song, three minutes of heaven, a message from a more, or less, innocent time?

I think it is all of these, something in between all of this mess, in a world in which those who are most vulnerable are used as a cover-story for those with actual power. A world in which victims are blamed for the violence imposed upon them. The Young Girl is an omnipresent fantasy we are encouraged to believe in, a kind of religion of eternal desire and object-hood that of course tells us nothing about actual girlhood.

Would the young girl in the song tell the guy to fuck off for being a creep, or would she stand up for the right to be a sexual being, consent laws be damned? Unless misogyny, both externally imposed and internally reproduced, never has a chance to thrive, how could we ever know? In the meantime, probably best to keep running.

Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, edited by Rhian E. Jones and Eli Davies, is available now from Repeater Books. Tonight, at the Fiddler's Elbow, Camden, there will be a special event in support of the book featuring performances by Big Joanie and I, Doris plus Karaoke. Nina Power teaches Philosophy at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of many articles on philosophy, politics, feminism and culture.